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The chaos of Haiti’s post-quake prison system

The Director General of the Haitian Prison Service speaks at the 2010 ACA summer conference


A woman stands on the remains of her home, damaged by the Jan. 12 earthquake, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

By Luke Whyte

It’s 4:53 p.m. on a Tuesday and your shift is ending. You’re removing your duty belt when suddenly, the earth beneath your boots seems to open up and roar. The ground violently shakes. Knees buckle. Legs collapse. Walls fold and ceilings drop. And 40 seconds later, when it all stops, friends lie dead, inmates crawl free from collapsed cells, and everything you’ve known and planned disappears amid massive, swooning clouds of concrete and dust.

It may sound like something from an apocalyptic movie, yet on January 12th, 2010, this is exactly what happened at Haiti’s National Penitentiary when a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Port-au-Prince.

Jean Celestin Roland, Director General of the Haitian Prison Service, spoke at the 2010 American Correctional Association summer conference about the circumstances surrounding Haiti’s post-earthquake prison system with the help of Davos Francois, a U.N. advisor at the National Penitentiary and John May, M.D., the chief medical officer of Armor Correctional Health Services. This article relays the picture they painted.

The day of the quake
On the morning of January 12th, 2010, there were 4,215 inmates in Haiti’s National Penitentiary — a facility with 35 cells designed to hold 500 inmates. Throughout Haiti, 8,535 prisoners had been housed across 17 prisons. By 5:00 p.m. that same day, about 4,800 of those 8,535 inmates had died or escaped. And every single prisoner at the National Penitentiary was gone.

Security camera footage of Haiti’s presidential palace collapsing during the earthquake.

Roland was in a meeting at his office when the earthquake hit.

“At about quarter to five, the meeting stopped because everyone was in danger,” Roland — whose words were being translated from Creole to English by Francois — said.

“After a couple seconds, we exited the office to try and find out what was going on. That is when someone called and said, ‘The national palace has collapsed.’ We knew then that it was an earthquake.”

The Aftermath
System-wide, only four prisoners were killed during the quake (two more died climbing the fence). Seven correctional officers died, but they were in the courthouse, not the prison itself.

Of the 28 federal buildings in Haiti, only one was not destroyed. Among the buildings that toppled was the vital records office, which held all the cities’ birth certificates, property deeds, etc. All that information was lost.

At the National Penitentiary, fires broke out as soon as the earth stopped shaking. This led to the complete destruction of the facility’s only administrative building and the loss of all prisoner records.

The level of devastation was near incomprehensible. Literally every aspect of the criminal justice system seemed to crumble before their eyes.

“Tent cities have become the norm in Haiti,” Francois said. This means that the majority of residents in the city of Port-au-Prince are now living in squatter camps throughout the city.

“Right now, when (politicians) talk about reconstruction,” Roland said, “they talk about constructing hospital and constructing schools — and those things are very important. But they always forget about the correctional system, which is the back bone of a society.”

Despite the limited amount of aid given to rebuild the corrections system, the international community is demanding a lot from Roland.

Immediately after the earthquake, May explained, there were widespread media reports of massive crime increases throughout squatter camps, along with a lot of publicity given to the fact that so many prisoners had escaped. This led to great international pressure to reopen the prison and to re-arrest the escapees.

Because of this pressure, a small section of the National Penitentiary reopened on February 15th, less than five weeks after the earthquake had occurred. It now holds more than 1,300 prisoners in just a handful of cells.

Just to keep the prisoners fed and alive, Roland explained, is a challenge all on its own.

A Horrific Problem
How do you run a corrections system with a broken back?

“There’s an interesting problem of ambiguity of who was really a former prisoner,” May said. “Remember, all the records are gone and, though there is some effort to try and find and collect the names and photographs of people who were in prison prior, there are a number of people in prison now who had been legally released prior to the earthquake — say in November or December.”

May said that police will arrive in a neighborhood and ask the locals if they’ve seen any escaped convicts. “Neighbors say, ‘Hey he used to be in the prison’,” May said, “and the police take (the released inmate back to prison) and lock him up. So, then they need to fight to go find a judge, but you can’t find a judge b/c the courts have collapsed and the judges are gone. It is a horrific problem.”

Prior to the earthquake, 75 percent of Haiti’s prisoners were pre-trial. Now most every incarcerated person no longer has a confirmed sentence. Most have never seen the inside of a court.

And yet, somewhat surprisingly, many escapees are turning themselves back in, Francois said. “They realize after being in the streets that it is better to be in prison; at least there you have food and water.”

Planning for the Future
Francois identified three stages in the long-term plan for rebuilding Haiti’s prison system.

1. Crisis response (Jan. — April, 2010)
2. Recovery (April — Dec., 2010)
3. Normalization (Dec. 2010 — Dec. 2011)

Currently, we are in the recovery stage, which involves trying to physically rebuild the system as best as can be done with the limited resources available.

The normalization stage will be a big leap forward and will require the help of ACA, the UN and the hard efforts of hundreds, if not thousands, of people. According to Roland, here are the goals for normalization:

1. Train professional corrections officers
2. Restructure and reorganize the system databases – so that judges and cops can be held accountable and prisoners can receive a fair trial and sentence
3. Develop treatment programs for prisoners
4. Improve the public image of corrections
5. Become an integral part of improving public security
6. Become a model system in the Caribbean for corrections and respect of human rights

If you’re interested in helping out with the situation in Haiti’s prisons, ACA recommends donating to the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund.

The team of editors and writers is committed to tracking down and reporting on the most important issues and interviews in the correctional field.

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